Composition For Four Hands–Best 100 Mysteries of All Time

Composition  for Four HandsHilda Lawrence–1947-OOP

“They wheeled her chair to the big bay window in her bedroom. She’d been fed and bathed. She’d had what they called her forty winks.  They said it was such a beautiful afternoon and wasn’t she lucky to have such a nice window? Then they left her.”

This is the ominous beginning to a story that builds in suspense. Unusual, that it’s not told in the first person, considering the main character is completely paralyzed. I would have probably gone with Nora Manson telling the story from her personal point of view, of her terror in the unknown and the fact that she was being targeted by someone in her own home, someone wanted to kill her. Hilda Lawrence made the better choice of allowing the reader to see all the characters actions and some of their thoughts. And because of that, the suspense is more acute. Nora is surrounded by what appears to be loving family and friends. Her nurse, Miss Sills, is completely devoted. Her husband calls her his ‘little baby girl’. Her faithful servant Emma, stays with her at night. Her former brother-in-law, Bruce Cory ,who also lives with her, visits daily. The next door neighbor’s son, George, takes special interest in her, having been best friend to her late son. The death of her son was what caused her paralysis.  It was the shock of finding him hanging from the neck in the attic. The reader learns these facts as the story progresses, the entire time aware that Nora is frightened to distraction, and struggling desperately to find some way to move.

“make yourself think, hard hard. Think of your hands, your fingers, a substitute for a pencil. Anything, anything, that will turn and role between useless fingers, turn and roll and give them strength. Secret strength that must be kept hidden. If you were a soldier in a hospital, they’d put something in your hands and help you turn and roll it. In a hospital they’d help you. That’s why you’re not in a hospital. That’s why you’re home.

She continues:

“Your’e lucky again because you can’t laugh. Your’e lucky because if you once started,  you couldn’t stop. You’d give yourself away. Self inflicted injury, when all you want to do is to keep your life, not lose it. Keep it, such as it is, keep it until–Why, I’m crying. Those are tears on my hands. I didn’t know I could cry.”

It’s this inner conversation and the slow observations of the nurse and George, that helps build tension. Will they will figure out what is happening to her, and that she is in moral danger from someone’s hands?  Hands that crawl down the side of the house, and are seen through the windows, and approaches Nora as she is frozen in bed, unable to fend off an attack.

The first time I read this, I was mesmerized, and not a little afraid. What a horrible feeling it would be to have no way to defend yourself against a predator, and one that supposedly loved or at least cared for you. And no way to tell others what was happening. I couldn’t put it down. I recently re-read it, and although I saw how well the story was put together, and the way it was brilliantly written to elicit the response I felt the first time reading it, I didn’t get the same thrill. It is definitely one of those books, like certain films, that can only be experienced once to get the full terror. The shower scene in Psycho freaked me out the first time I saw it on a teeny black and white TV in the downstairs dorm common room, alone, that I didn’t want to take a shower again for the rest of my life. The next time I saw it, I watched for the technical aspects, of how well the film was edited to create that kind of montage effect. This being said, it was one of the most compelling mysteries I’d ever read, and for that it belongs on my list–maybe at a very low number–you’ll need to wait for the list in order of best–and see!

Footnote–many other Best lists have another title by Hilda Lawrence–Blood on the Snow–a book I tried reading, and got no further than the first couple of chapters. Weird how that happens–especially after I read another title, and loved it.


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